Praise for Small, Mixed-Use Buildings

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I have seen small active storefronts in North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. When people get around in cities mostly on foot, shops like these provide essential goods and services within walking distance. They also provide places for neighborhood residents (often as local as the building owner upstairs) to earn a livelihood. 

I appreciate these little shops not only for their utility, but also because they do so much to increase the interest and vitality of a neighborhood. When I walk around my neighborhood, the daytime activity means there are people about, people inside storefront windows, eyes on the street, shop displays to look at, people to watch. In a real sense, these little shops do more to humanize a neighborhood than the multitude of apartments around (largely empty by day, with their shades drawn at night). Because they are generally pretty small, these storefronts are also typically pretty affordable, creating a foothold for new businesses and entrepreneurs to get established and grow their businesses.

All of the buildings above are in the R-3 zoning district, which is Providence’s small, multifamily zoning district: allowing duplexes, triple-deckers, and townhouses—and no commercial uses. While there are plenty of things I would tweak in Providence’s zoning ordinance, it’s genuinely pretty reasonable and has a few remarkably insightful things snuck into it. One such provision is that it allows buildings which were originally built with commercial units to be reused as “Neighborhood Commercial Establishments,” subject to a reduced list of allowable uses and requiring a special permit. This provision is what allows these businesses to exist mixed into a residential neighborhood. Unfortunately, there’s no provision in the current zoning to allow more such neighborhood commercial establishments in new buildings. 

Why Can’t We Have Nice Things

Most American zoning ordinances, from the very beginning, were very focused on the separation of uses. The idea being that shops and offices were actively detrimental to the health of residential streets. The separation of uses has descended from its Victorian-infused roots to the present day through zoning practice that assumes the necessity of residential only zones. 

I think it’s time to change this. We could change our zoning rules to allow new buildings (and existing buildings) to pepper in more small commercial spaces to help spice up and enliven our residential streets and neighborhoods. I would go so far as to say that we should actively encourage the creation of these little storefronts (property tax incentives, grants, bonus density, etc.) because of their positive spill-over effects on the neighborhood. There’s even a hip term for it in urbanism and zoning reform circles: the “accessory commercial unit.”

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